By Lindsay Lawrence
Point Park News Service
For decades the Asian Carp, an invasive fish species has threatened the ecosystem of America’s Great Lakes. Now, the aggressive species is also making its way up the Ohio River.
Unless something is done to curb the spread of the creature that can grow up to 100-pounds, experts say it could potentially devastate the native species found in rivers and streams by devouring all of the underwater plan vegetation.
“It’s just a matter of time before this ravenous species reaches the Ohio River, killing thousands of native fish populations in the Ohio, as well as the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers and their tributaries despite federal and state agencies efforts,” said Gregory Paul, a Pittsburgh marine biologist and avid fisherman.
These popular fish of Eastern Europe and Asia have jumped into the spotlight here in the United States. Their dense populations and voracious appetite have our native fish starving to survive.
States along the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River are filing lawsuits amongst other legal actions to stem the spread of the invasive carp, but now experts fear the fish that could devastate the aquatic ecosystem are swimming their way towards Pittsburgh.
When this happens, it could potentially forever alter the fish resurgence Pittsburgh has been experiencing since the steel mills closed many decades ago.
This invasion can be traced back to the 1970s when Southern private farmers, mostly catfish farmers, first brought the carp to the United States to clean algae out of commercial ponds and were also used in sewage treatment plants. After the Mississippi River flooded in the early 1990s, the fish escaped the closed water systems, when floodgates literally opened. The “Asian carp invasion” began.
These animals, who can tip the scales at anywhere from 60 to 100 pounds, pose many threats to aquatic life in the surrounding areas.
“They spawn three times a year,” Paul said. “The carp eat roughly 40 percent of their body weight a day in plankton. They’re known to grow up to be a whopping 100 pounds. They lay millions of eggs when they reproduce.”
According to Paul, the carp gorge themselves by eating plankton and various underwater plants which in turn reduce the food supply for other smaller fish causing their population to decline rapidly. They reproduce quickly and dominate their ecosystems, making up 90 percent of the mass organisms in some areas.
Currently, the Asian carp are rapidly moving upward in river systems in 18 states along the Mississippi River and its tributaries but are on the verge of entering the great lakes.
“If Asian carp were to be found in the Great Lakes, it would exterminate other life forms within the lake. That would be absolutely devastating” said Paul.
In fact, just this past summer DNA samples of the fish were found in Lake Erie. According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, out of the 150 water samples collected from Sandusky Bay area in early August, 20 samples included the DNA of silver carp, one of the two types of Asian carp.
State and federal officials tested the area over three days this past summer, but it is still not known whether Lake Erie actually contains Asian carp.
According to Beth McCorkle, an agency spokesperson, there’s no way to know if they came through the waterway passage that connects Lake Michigan to the carp-infested Mississippi River.
“There is not much we can do until we actually pinpoint where the fish are and where they will be heading,” McCorkle said. “If researchers are able to find breeding Asian carp it would pose an enormous threat to the lake’s $1-billion-a-year fishing industry, not to mention the $10-billion-a-year Lake Erie tourism industry.”
In order to prevent this problem, a solution needs to be put forth to stop these invasive fish from taking over the waterways. Paul believes this problem cannot be solved without help from the government.
“The Great Lake states cannot solve this issue on their own. The Federal government’s assistance is needed to keep the Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes through the many connecting interstate waters. But so far, all three branches of the federal government aren’t doing the job” stated Paul.
In attempt to solve the problem in 2002, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built an electric barrier in the Chicago water system with hopes of preventing movement of the fish, but in the past year, Asian Carp DNA and a few live fish have been found past the electrical barrier. The fish are passing through the barrier without being killed, thus proving the system is flawed.
“The Government has refused to hear the dispute brought by the Great Lakes states,” Paul said.
Earlier this year Pennsylvania joined four other states in filing a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.The states argued that the two Asian carp species pose a severe threat to the Great Lakes’ $7 billion fisheries. The suit calls for a court order to increase government’s efforts to block the carp.
As a result the federal government opposed the appeal, saying the case does not warrant further review and told the Supreme Court that the effort to prevent the spread of the carp was already being effectively controlled.
Along with Michigan, Pennsylvania is involved with other legal action to convince Illinois to close the Chicago locks.
“Without funding from the government, it’s difficult to exterminate this issue” said McCorkle.
To date $200 million dollars in federal funds have been put towards keeping the invasive fish from entering the Great Lakes but no funding to keep them from entering the rivers.
In September, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) called on the Obama administration to make a more concerted effort to stop this epidemic in Lake Erie but also rivers in the Pittsburgh region.
Sen. Casey concentrated on the fact that Lake Erie coastal region supports 1.2 million Pennsylvanian jobs and that the three Pittsburgh Rivers generate a lot of revenue through outdoor activities like fishing and boating.
According to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, 341 miles away from Pittsburgh’s Point, the carp are found to be breeding for the first time in Greenup Pool, located on the northern border of Kentucky.
This Kentucky body of water flows directly towards the Ohio River, which means these pesky fish could be swimming their way into Pittsburgh very soon.
According to Paul, there are a number of strategies to solve this problem, such as building more electrical barriers, but few viable solutions.
“There are a lot of methods being tossed around. I believe the most realistic option is the idea of introducing poison micro-pellets that the carp would ingest thus creating genetic abnormalities and would inevitably reduce their reproduction capabilities”.
America’s growing carp problem doesn’t concern Chinese citizens, in fact, it makes their mouths water. According to Paul, there is a huge market for the Carp in China.
“In fact silver and bighead carp are considered to be a delicacy compared to the cheaper, more commercially farmed carp they are used to.”
The bone-filled fish is easier to eat with chopsticks, which explains why the fish is more popular across the Pacific. Efforts to promote the firm, bland tasting, white fleshed creature to U.S. fish markets are underway but the bony fish has been a tough sell to American diners, who prefer plumper varieties that are easy to fillet, explained Paul.
“If the Asian carp invasion is not stopped, soon Americans with be substituting their favorite fish dishes like salmon or flounder, with bone-filled, dried out Asian carp. Yum!”